Eyes wide open: Now is time to watch out for termites|County Extension Service notes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 12, 2009

A local farmer called last week to report a swarm of termites had temporarily parked in his shop, and he wanted to know how to get rid of them. Looking at the calendar, we are right about in the midst of when most Eastern subterranean termites will swarm — mid-February to mid-May. It certainly would not be out of the question for anyone to see a swarm near their property, so today’s column will hopefully arm you with some useful background.

Eastern subterranean termites are one of the three primary species in our state and the predominant species in Warren County. While considered a natural and important part of the ecosystem in Southern forests, where they help recycle fallen trees and limbs, individuals refer to termites as pests when they enter our wooden buildings or damage other structures. For now, at least, the other two termite species are not as common. Formosan termites are reported in our area much less often than the Eastern subterranean, and the Southeastern drywood termites occur primarily in the extreme southern part of the state.

Swarming is the primary means by which termites reproduce, spread and begin new colonies. It takes several years for a colony to become large enough to produce swarmers. These winged swarmers are unmated males and females. A healthy, well-established colony of subterranean termites will produce hundreds of thousands of swarmers.

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Most swarming events occur over a short time frame — normally during the morning — and go unobserved. Seeing swarmers emerge inside a building or finding dead swarmers on a windowsill is a sure sign that a building is infested. Formosan termites usually swarm from early May to early June and they normally swarm at night. 

Although swarming termites might resemble winged ants superficially, a close examination reveals several major differences. Ants have elbowed antennae, a narrow, wasp-like waist and hind wings that are shorter than the forewings. Termite swarmers have straight, bead-like antennae, a broad waist and the hind wings and forewings are the same length.

When an Extension client brings insects he or she suspects might be termites into the office, I routinely send him or her up to our Extension entomology specialist, Dr. Blake Layton at Mississippi State University. I feel better having an expert with access to proper equipment and knowledge to positively identify critters that can potentially cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to a person’s multi-thousand-dollar investment — their home. 

If termites are positively identified, perhaps the best advice for the homeowner is to not try self-treating the home. Hire a licensed professional — for several good reasons. First, the pest control company has access to more effective, longer-lasting products than homeowners can buy. A commercial applicator’s license is required to buy most of these products. Second, it takes some pretty specialized equipment to properly treat a house: high volume spray tanks, powerful drills with long masonry drill bits and specialized, leak-proof applicators. Third, licensed termite technicians have the specialized knowledge to safely and effectively treat a house for termites.

John C. Coccaro is county Extension director. Write to him at 1100-C Grove St., Vicksburg, MS 39180 or call 601-636-5442. E-mail him at jcoccaro@ext.msstate.edu